«The Economic and Social Aspects of Biodiversity Benefits and Costs of Biodiversity in Ireland REPORT PREPARED BY: CRAIG BULLOCK, OPTIMIZE CONSULTANTS ...»
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Proceedings of the National Academy of Science,Vol. 103, no. 40
10.1 T H E CON T E X T The recent Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed a remarkable consensus that climate change is a reality and is being brought about by human induced changes in the atmosphere. The IPCC dispensed with its earlier more tentative acknowledgement of the probability of climate change to warn that without appropriate policies to control Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) temperatures could be expected to rise to between 1.8oC and 4oC by the end of the century, while sea levels could rise by as much as 43cm. Climate changes of this magnitude would lead to major social and economic disruption to human society. It also places 20-30% of global species at risk of extinction.
The IPCC findings were further reiterated by the Stern Review produced for the UK Government which reported, without ambiguity, that rising temperatures threatened essential life support mechanisms. It warned that temperatures could reach a threshold point at which catastrophic events could occur, including the melting of the entire Greenland icecap or changes in major oceanic currents such as that of the North Atlantic. These, in turn, could trigger further rises in temperature and sea levels. There includes the risk of positive feedback from potentially irreversible impacts such as the release of carbon and methane stores in bogs and tundra.
Ireland’s response to the prospect of climate change has, so far, been lacklustre. The first National Climate Change Strategy was published in 2000 and predicted a redirection of economic growth towards sustainable development guided by the Precautionary Principle that economic development could not be allowed to risk catastrophic changes in climate. Various radical policy initiatives were promised, including emissions trading, carbon taxation, cross-sectoral instruments, fuel switching, energy efficiency and the closure of the coal-fired Moneypoint power station. In fact, GHGs have continued to rise inexorably, propelled by economic and demographic growth, particularly by growth in construction and transport. Emissions have already far exceeded the 13% increase over 1990 levels permitted under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at Kyoto.
The second National Climate Change Strategy, published this year, is upbeat about the prospect of GHG emissions mitigation. The new strategy anticipates a reduction in emissions of 17 million tonnes of CO2 by 2012. Of this, 79% is expected to come from domestic action. Changes in energy generation in favour of renewable sources are principal amongst these domestic initiatives.
A 15% target has been set for renewable energies such as wind by 2010 complemented by proposals to use 30% biomass in peat-fired power stations by 2015. Technological improvements in fuel use are also projected to make a significant contribution.
The National Climate Change Strategy anticipated that climate change impacts on Ireland could be relatively benign compared with poorer or more vulnerable countries. The recent Stern Report suggests that this view was complacent. A worst case scenario would involve a shift in the Gulf Stream which could, paradoxically plunge Ireland into colder winter temperatures. While there is
no evidence yet of any such shift, the following impacts are now widely anticipated:
1. Rising temperatures. The recent EPA Report prepared by NUI Maynooth (Implications for the EU Climate Protection Target for Ireland) predicts an average rise in temperature of 2oC and as much as 3oC in the summer. Higher temperatures can be expected to lead to various health impacts and to significant biodiversity impacts as many cold climate bird and insect species are lost.
2. Changes in rainfall. As temperatures rise, there will be a greater capacity to store water in the atmosphere with the result that rainfall could increase by 17% in Western areas and possibly as much as 25% in places (McElwain & Sweeney, 2007; Murphy & Charlton, 2006).
However, the impact could be seasonal with summers being generally drier. Summer rainfall could fall by up to 25% in the South and East. Drought, hitherto almost unknown, could become a regular event.
3. Increased frequency of storms. Rising temperatures will inject added energy into the atmosphere with the likely consequence of increased storm frequency and severity. The principal result will be a rising economic and social cost of damage to buildings and infrastructure, including coastal defences.
4. Rising sea levels. Rising sea levels threaten to overwhelm sea defences and could lead to the inundation of some of major cities. Low-lying or soft rock areas are at particular risk of erosion (Fealy, 2003).
5. Marine impacts. Temperature changes are anticipated to lead to changes in fish stocks.There is also a risk of more frequent and severe plankton blooms.
10.2 C L I M AT E C H A N G E A N D B I O D I V E R S I T Y “There are levels of biodiversity loss that cannot be sustained without incurring catastrophic change/fundamental reorganisation in all ecosystems.” Perrings et al. (1995).
Natural systems have a remarkable resilience to withstand shocks (Holling, 1973). The complexity of the ecosystem allows particular species to quickly fill new opportunities that may have been vacated by others. Furthermore, natural systems have a direct input on climate. Forests, for example, regulate the world’s climate through the absorption of carbon dioxide and release of oxygen, uptake and transpiration of water, trapping of sunlight, etc. At a macro level, the Amazon has a vital climatic role, but so too does the vast expanse of Taiga forest across Scandinavia and Siberia for Northern Europe. In Ireland, habitats such as peatlands and wetlands have an important influence on hydrology or micro-climates.
The problem with climate change is two-fold. Firstly, ecosystems have adapted gradually to climate change of millennia whereas the anticipated rate of temperature change far exceeds that experienced in the recent geological past. This will make it impossible for many species to adapt quickly enough. Secondly, due to human land use, natural habitats are now highly fragmented. Some species such as birds may be able to relocate, but for others this possibility no longer exists.
No determinate relationship has been uncovered between biodiversity and the stability of ecosystems (Johnson et al. 1996). Folke et al (1996) suggest that robustness may instead be more strongly linked with keystone species. There are many ecologists, however, who argue that stability depends less on keystone species and is rather dependent on a complex web of interactions between organisms. They argue that functional diversity depends on the capacity of new interactions to replace others in the event of an external shock (Turner et al. 1999).
There is still very little that we understand about the resilience of ecosystems. Many key ecosystem services such as the functioning of the soil biota or marine food chain depend on species and interactions that have been little researched. Indeed, we still barely have the capacity to identify many microbes living in the soil. In the context of this uncertainty, the adverse implications of climate change are multiplied. We simply do not know what thresholds could precipitate widespread collapse of life-sustaining ecosystem services. In such circumstances, the best policy is to adopt a precautionary principle and to take actions to remove the root causes of climate change.
10.3 C L I M AT E C H A N G E A N D B I O D I V E R S I T Y I N I R E LA N DThere are various views on the risk of climate change to biodiversity in Ireland. On the one hand, Norton & Ulanowicz (1992) have argued that because ecosystems in Ireland are less complex than those of mainland Europe, they possess fewer interdependencies than larger systems. On the other hand, because Ireland is an island nation there is less capacity for species to relocate from abroad. Due to the loss of the land bridge following the Ice Age, Ireland already has a much diminished biodiversity compared with Britain, with only half as many plant and fern species. A lower variety of species means that Ireland’s ecosystem may not have the same resilience as elsewhere as there will be less capacity for new or niche species to replace others that might be directly affected by climate change.
Berry et al. (2002) have modelled the possible future distribution of British and Irish flora, fauna and habitat in response to two climate change scenarios (high & low) up to 2050. Their results indicate a mixed response for most habitats, but suggest the loss of a number of species which currently coexist in, or characterise, these habitats.
More significant impacts are possible in the long-term. The loss of the Gulf Stream would be catastrophic for Ireland. However, the more likely changes will be serious enough if realised. These
- Higher temperatures which could lead to the loss of many cold climate species. Many species are already at the southern edge of their climatic range. The decline of the Ring Ouzel being one bird species that already appears to be affected by higher temperatures. Seabird colonies are also at risk from the migration of the fish supplies on which they depend. The impact on the soil biota and on nitrogen cycles is unknown. Many species are known to be sensitive to soil temperature and levels of CO2. Given the high level of biodiversity present in most soils, an adjustment is likely, but cannot be assumed over more significant climate scenarios.
- Lower summer precipitation, combined with higher temperatures, would exacerbate problems in relation to the water balance with impacts on drinking water supplies, agriculture and aquatic ecosystem services. Lower water levels would mean that aquatic organisms would not only be able to cope with higher proportions of pollutants, but would themselves be threatened by this pollution and less able to recover in winter.
- Increased storms will also inevitably lead to damage to trees, particularly Ireland’s ageing stock of mature deciduous trees.